The dream v. the reality: it’s a tough world

It might also be true in other areas, but it has always seemed to me that general aviation is littered with more broken dreams than any other field. As an observer for about 60 years, the length of the list of failed projects amazed me when I wrote down the ones that I remember.

I will use one project that I watched closely for a while to begin the discussion.

Back in the 1970s, I heard that there was a futuristic light twin in Mississippi that already had FAA Part 23 certification and that would soon be in production. That news surprised me because in the magazine business we usually learned of new airplanes as soon as they were drawn on a napkin in the bar.

Burns BA-42

The Burns BA-42 got certified, but could never be built in any number.

The Burns BA-42 was a conventional mid-wing light twin. The only break with tradition was its t-tail. That had not yet become a rage in general aviation design.

The BA-42 had a pair of Continental engines similar to those that power the Cessna 337 Skymaster. I think they were rated for the same 210 horsepower as those in the 337.

Sam Burns had big dreams for the BA-42 and I spent quite a bit of time at his modest facility in Starkville, Mississippi, also home of Mississippi State University.

Sam had done the development and certification of the BA-42 on a shoestring though he never did divulge how much money was invested in the project through certification. He never said, but I always guessed he had informal help from Mississippi State’s legendary aeronautical engineering department.

The project was begun in the 1960s and lasted into the 1970s. Two airframes were built but I don’t remember that both were actually flying. One was, for sure, because Jack Olcott of FLYING flew it and gave a good report on its flying qualities.

The next step after certification is production and I think Sam Burns thought he could smell the roses at one point. Another town in Mississippi had floated revenue bonds to build a factory and I visited that factory. There was nothing in the plant other than one BA-42. No tooling. No nothing.

Sam and I drew numbers in the dust on the floor and the conclusion was that there was no way he could achieve a positive cash flow unless a lot of money was poured into the project. Sam did not have that kind of money and had failed to find a backer who was willing to gamble on the project.  It would have been a gamble, too, because the light twin market was well-populated with products from existing manufacturers and his BA-42 did not offer any clear advantages.

Windecker Eagle

The Windecker Eagle was the first composite airplane to be certified.

The difficulty of certification has often been cited as the reason more new airplanes are not developed. This did not deter Sam and his small band of workers. What did was a lack of capital, something that has doomed many an airplane project. The best way to lose a sum of money on something like this is to start out with just a little less money than you need. In the end, it always seems to cost more, sometimes much more, than any original estimate. Maybe it is better to start with at least twice as much money as it is estimated to cost.

The Windecker Eagle was the first composite airplane certified. I flew it once and it was just okay. I learned quickly that being inside a composite airplane with a big engine out front was a lot like being in a bass drum while the band is playing. It seemed like there was no way for the sound to get out. The project died before it really got started. Perhaps they could have quieted the cabin if they had been able to continue.

The pressurized Mooney M30 flew but was not certified. It was a big airplane and when watching it first fly, I was struck by the apparent struggle it had getting off the ground. Mooney had previously certified the pressurized Mooney Mustang single but it didn’t find much market. I never flew that airplane but, by all accounts, it was quite a slug.

A recent piston airplane that didn’t make it was the composite Adam 500 push-pull twin. A proof-of-concept airplane was built by Scaled Composites and then a full-size 500 was built by Adam.

Adam A500

Adam sunk millions into the A500, but never really finished the airplane.

I flew the Adam 500 with my friend Glenn Maben and found it good but not exceptional. They were projecting certification at an early date but the airplane I flew wasn’t pressurized, didn’t have any heat in it, and entry was by a ladder after which the ground crew fitted the door in place and latched it. In other words, there was still a lot of work to be done. It also didn’t meet the cruise speed projections but Adam said they would be installing gear doors and that would fix the speed. I don’t know whether they ever did this but I doubt if the speed would have gotten up to what was projected.

This is a good place to look at factors that can doom new designs.

The Adam and the certified and produced Beech Starship had things in common. The Adam weighed well over 1,000 pounds more than its projected empty weight. The Starship weighed an extra ton or more.

In that both were composite airplanes, with proof of concept airframes built by Scaled Composites, the first conclusion might be that designers using this method of construction have extra sets of rose-colored glasses. There are successful composite airplanes, such as the Cirrus, but I have never seen a composite that weighs less than a like metal airplane and I have seen at least two that weigh a lot more.

The simple fact is that composites are not magic and in the best of cases have not offered either weight or cost advantages.

Beech Starship

Beech’s Starship, the supposed King Air successor, was thousands of pounds overweight and never caught on.

Another thing that makes it tough for new designs is competition. Is it a better airplane? Will it have equal or better reliability? Will the available service and support be as good as for other airplanes? Both the Adam 500 and the Starship fell short of being better airplanes.

There have been a lot of turbine airplane projects that barely got off the ground while some did.

In the early 1960s, Beech built a full-scale mockup of a Model 120 turboprop. It was to be a fairly large airplane, to take the place of the twin Beech, Model 18. The proposed powerplant was from Turbomeca in Europe and was to develop almost 1,000 shaft horsepower per side, compared with 450 for the Model 18.

It would have been an expensive project for Beech and Olive Ann Beech, and her nephew Frank Hedrick, were talented but fiscally conservative managers. For a less expensive airplane, they mated the Army U-21, an unpressurized turboprop Queen Air derivative with PT-6 engines, with the airframe of a piston-powered pressurized Queen Air Model 88, and, presto, an almost instant King Air, a design that will celebrate 50 years of production in 2014 and is the only turboprop twin left standing except, perhaps, for the Piaggio Avanti which shipped five airplanes in 2012.

The King Air is especially remarkable when you consider that it outlasted the Cheyenne family, two Cessna turboprop twins, the turboprop Commanders, the Mitsubishi MU-2, the Merlin twin turboprops, and the Starship, all of which were certified and produced and all of which have faded away.

Avtek 400

The Avtek 400 was certainly an unconventional design.

The Avtek 400, Beech Lightning and OMAC-1 (later Laser 300) were turboprop designs that never made it to production. The Avtek was a twin, the other two were singles. The Avtek and OMAC were unusual in appearance, to say the least, and while the designers were probably proud of their handiwork, many observers looked at the airplanes, scratched their heads, and thought, “Why did they do that?”

Other turboprop singles are in the development stage and time will tell whether or not they work out.

Pure jets are the sexiest airplanes of all and there has been no shortage of new design proposals there, both single-engine and twin.

The Eclipse 500 twinjet was the vehicle for what has accurately been called the largest financial failure in the history of general aviation. Everybody — suppliers, customers, depositors, investors (including Bill Gates), got screwed, for lack of a better word. The down-the-drain total was close to a billion dollars. That is a lot of money to bleed out of a small (and, right now, struggling) activity. Worse, it provides an object lesson that will deter investment in aviation products for decades to come.

Eclipse 500

The Eclipse 500 holds the record for the most money wasted–close to $1 billion.

The Eclipse 500 was certified and produced with 259 airplanes delivered. Like everything else about the project, the certification was controversial. There were suggestions of FAA favoritism toward Eclipse, if you can believe that. The first airplanes delivered were short of what had been promised and in the end, the airplanes that were delivered were sold at a price far short of the actual cost of building those airplanes.

A charter operator, DayJet, had a business plan that was just as bad when it ordered 1,400 Eclipse 500s, or, over half the order book. That company folded after it took delivery of a handful of the jets and operated them for a short while.

The Eclipse promise was to deliver a lot of jets at a low price, even lower than the piston twin unpressurized Beech Baron. It was a false promise from day one and when investors decided to quit shoveling money into a bottomless pit, that was the end. A lot of us said from the beginning that the project could not work as planned but the true believers stayed loyal right up to the bankruptcy.

Another company bought the Eclipse assets and plans to put the airplane back into production in 2013 and to sell it for a realistic price. How that will go remains to be seen. Right now the entry-level jet market is so soft that Cessna has “paused” production of all its more basic jets.

The Swearingen SJ-30 twin jet made it through certification and into limited production though not much is going on there at present. It might be another case of a designer coming up with an airplane he thought people should have as opposed to an airplane that people might actually care to buy.

Spectrum S-33

The Spectrum S-33 Independence looked great, but never made it into production.

A lot of other twin jets have been proposed and a few have actually flown. The Spectrum S-33 Independence was in a flight test program when it was lost because the ailerons were hooked up backwards after some maintenance. The pilot I flew with in the Adam 500, Glen Maben, was lost in that accident.

There is a bright spot in the jet business. Embraer is a new entrant in the basic twinjet market with the Phenom 100 and that airplane has been successful and has an excellent reputation.

There are also the single-engine jets that have gotten publicity out of all proportion to their progress toward certification and production. I would imagine the one thing that deters investors from putting money into a single jet would be the minuscule market size that might exist for this product. To me, a total of 50 airplanes a year would be quite optimistic.

So, there have been a lot of broken dreams, one of which might constitute the end of such for a long time to come if people look at the history of the Eclipse before deciding to roll the dice on a project. It was, purely and simply, a travesty. We might also be learning that all-new airplanes are also risky for the folks who build airliners. Who knows what additional evils lurk in the shadows of the 787?

17 Comments

  1. Robert Towe says:

    Glad to see your still writing, watched all your video’s from Sporty’s about a hundred times…Anyways, you would think the FAA could help our industry a little more than just ride the certification timeline into retirement as I have heard has happened from some of the Inspectors and certification folks. You can’t even get a field approval anymore cause know one wants to sign anything off for fear of losing a pay grade. How about trying to get a 135 certificate, it’s virtually impossible, 18-24 months if you can even get it…The whole organization is too afraid to do anything for fear of lawyers and losing a pay grade…It’s just a sad state of affairs…IMHO

  2. Ian D. Samson says:

    Take Jim Bede’s BD5 – fabulous design, relatively cheap kit form on plan, never really “took off” either. Pity, because it was a beautiful aircraft – just ask Richard Collins (The Egg and the Coffin).

    • Bill says:

      BD 5 fabulous design. Are you crazy? Do you know how many people were killed in that evil handling pile? I know the chief test pilot at Lockheed Skonk works and a NASA AMES engineer / test pilot who have many house in the BD 5. They are more than a handful for the best of the best pilots. Extremely dangerous plane.

  3. Todd Price says:

    I hope all the aeronautical dreamers and financial risk takers are not discouraged by the Eclipse fiasco. We are so far behind on our past dreams and ambitions. Aviation media were predicting supersonic business aircraft over 40 years ago. All that is discussed now is fuel efficiency. The modern corporate jets all have a generic sameness to them. Modern airliners are even more monotonous. Is anybody really excited about the 787? Who cares about how “electric and composite” the thing is? We should be going hypersonic with ramjets by now!!!

    I am afraid that over regulation and society’s love affair with the computer has destroyed any exciting future for aviation, at least in the short term.

  4. Steve Phoenix says:

    And the odd thing is that it seems to be peculiar to the aviation business. I’ll bet that if you had asked the original Eclipse investors to put money into a new automobile company with the idea of taking on Ford or GM, they would say you are nuts; no way. But for some reason it seems feasible to consider overtaking the existing airplane manufacturers with a new design airplane that maybe looks different. I guess there’s just more dreamers in aviation.

  5. José Roberto Arcaro Filho says:

    What about “The Angel”?
    The Website says, it´s still in production…
    It seems to be a nice design and a nice aircraft.
    Is it right?

  6. Will Eifert says:

    Hello Mr. Collins,

    I really enjoyed this article.

    Earlier today I asked my flight instructor, “Why haven’t we designed a stable and efficient aircraft that is affordable for a larger group of people.”

    He responded, “I’ve been in aviation for over 50 years, and that’s a question that everyone’s asked, but it’s never been answered.”

    I feel that aircraft design skips over the realistic and practical to pursue “dreams.” Take the Eclipse example. Investors shovel millions of dollars into the concept of a product that will, in reality, be marketable to only a small group of consumers.

    Why aren’t designers looking at expanding the possibility of aircraft ownership rather than embarking on haphazard quests for the latest and greatest?

    • Louis Sell says:

      Will:
      Small aircraft have small profit margins, same with automobiles.
      G.M. would rather sell Cadillacs than Chevys. Why? profit margin.
      That is why we see everyone building (or trying) to build a JT-A burner.

  7. We would enjoy speaking to you about the SJ30. Please feel free to friend us on our FaceBook page or visit our web page at http://www.syberjet.com to see the progress or download a recent newsletter.

    As you may already know the SJ30 is the highest performing light jet on the market today. With a high speed cruise of M 0.83, a 2,500 nm range, and a sea level cabin to 41,000 ft there is no other light jet that can compare. The SJ30 was certifed under then company name Sino Swearingen Aircraft in 2005. Sino delivered two aircraft to the market; SN 006 and SN 007. The company was later acquired by a UAE investment company and renamed in 2008 to Emivest Aerospace. In 2009 we delivered two additional aircraft; SN 008 and SN 010. SN 010 was delivered to the actor Morgan Freeman. During the world wide economic crisis of 2008-2009 UAE based Emivest essentially ran out of money to continue the program and filed for Chap 11 protection in late 2010. SyberJet purchased the assets in 2011 essentially wiping out the $800M invested in the developmnet of the aircraft. SyberJet is the sister company to Metalcraft Technologies, Inc which has built the aft fuselage and approx 70% of the sheet metal parts on the SJ30 since 1995. As a manufacturing company they are ideally suited to take the company into real production. All four aircraft continue to operate both here in the US and in Europe/S Africa and are supported by the new company SyberJet Aircraft.

    Next aircraft delivery is late 2014 with the next generation cockpit – SyberVision. Features up to four 12 inch liquid crystal displays and includes as standard SmartViewTM synthetic vision system (SVS), INAVTM moving map display system, electronics charts/maps, TCAS II, TAWS Level A, synoptic displays, dual flight management systems (FMS) with dual WAAS GPS/LPV, onboard weather radar, full EICAS, electronic checklists, DME, ADS-B Out, and 0.3 nm RNP as well as support for FANS-1A, SmartLandingTM, SmartRunwayTM, TOLD, ADS-B In, and emergency descent mode, and RVSM operations. Options include; CPDLC, XM weather, IRS, flight data recorder, cockpit voice recorder, dual charts/maps, HF radio, SATCOM, enhanced vision systems, second MFD, and other customer specified items.

    The SJ30 is a great aircraft and has absolutely no competition in the speed and range performance categories. If you want a fast aircraft that can literally cross the US and the North Atlantic non-stop there is only one aircraft in this price category – The SJ30.

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    General Manager & Director of Sales
    18 years on the program and single-pilot typed SJ30 pilot with 1200 hrs in SJ30s.

  8. LEN PAGGI says:

    As a 13500 hour commercial pilot and an aircharter owner operator for some 30 years with additional in hanger maintenance assistant,I often find it hard to believe at the errors of construction made in general aviation aircrafts. It is hard to understand how bright engineers can design and factories construct such sofisticated machines with so many obvious mistakes.I have come to the conclusion that every aircraft designer and manufacturer should have a competent person (preferable with maintenance experience) who will look for these errors.This person should not necessary suggest how to fix the problem but primary draw attention to the fault so that those responsible for the design and fabrication can look at amendments in order to make the aircraft more amenable to maintenance and a better product.I have not flown an aircraft a few times without picking up faults that would make the aircraft a better machine if corrected. I’m not an engineer but have considerable experience in the maintenance side.

  9. Hunter Heath says:

    Eloquently written, Richard. Maybe the dreamers of aircraft development are simply caught up in “the dream of flight.” Nonetheless, it amazes me that so many smart people get caught up in that dream and fail to calculate, or perhaps believe, the numbers scratched in the dust on the hangar floor. Make note that there are other industries in which the failure rate of dream projects is very high. A particularly sad example is the development of new medicines, wherein only about 1 in 10,000 compounds tested for possible utility ever make it to approval and use in patients.

  10. James Rossie says:

    I wonder what your take is on Synergy’s project from John McGinnis, synergyaircraft.com. I love the idea of a super fuel efficient 5 place and their modern approach in financing the project is interesting. I think they are still the one and only airplane Kickstarter project.

    Like you pointed out, one reason aircraft project fail is that they don’t bring enough benefit to the table to be successful. If Synergy can be sold at a reasonable price and actually perform close to projections I would buy one. Maybe the recent proposals on certification will help.

  11. Jim McDuffie says:

    My only comment is that technology, in general, is strewn with failures of both small and great magnitudes. The general wisdom in Sillycon Valley (sic) (with grin) is that if you don’t have several failed start-ups in your portfolio you’re not trying hard enough. It often takes failure to to create success. And those that have 1) the staying power, and 2) the guts to cut their loses when the writing is plain will succeed in the end – often big time. Look at both Apple and Microsoft for examples.

    Any project that is complex, difficult for one person to conceive of and visualize in its totality, will be subject to high failure rates. Its the nature of the beast.

  12. Doyle Frost says:

    Let’s consider the entire board now. How many start-up companies, worldwide, actually succeed? Now let’s reduce that to just manufacturing? Now reduce it even farther to just include extremely high end, (read: EXPENSIVE,) products? Now, add in a terrible economy. Add to that a public that is only interested in their immediate gratification, via the corner department store. Basically, what we have is a recipe for failure, unless one does it bit by bit, and can really, REALLY catch the public’s attention and eye, in a positive manner.
    When one can go on the internet and buy a forty or fifty year old plane with less than 5,000 hours on it, for the price of a brand new car, and with that car, they don’t have to mess with standing in line for hours while T.S.A. or airport management gives them all kinds of grief, or the added cost of a special medical exam every year or so, what are people going to choose? Convenience, or speed from point A to point B? (I personally prefer the enjoyment of spending a few hours in the air, just lazily enjoying the scenery, but I’m rapidly becoming the exception.)
    As a kid, friends of mine, and I, would spend hours just watching, and daydreaming, about those wonderful flying machines, and the people lucky enough to fly them. Then, if we were good, and lucky, maybe our parents would buy us a book, or even better, a model airplane kit. I can’t even get one of them for my grandson locally anymore. My sister had to send me one from England.

    • Joby Wieser says:

      Mr. Collins,

      I enjoyed your article but I would like to challenge you on something you said about composites.

      “but I have never seen a composite that weighs less than a like metal airplane and I have seen at least two that weigh a lot more.”

      The Pipistrel Virus SW is a composite 2 place. Empty weight 637 lb and MTOW 1322Lb
      I could be wrong but I don’t know of a metal plane that can compete with that.

      Sincerely,

      Joby Wieser
      Texas

  13. Louis Sell says:

    Just a few comments for the folks;
    Beech Starship: I spent many days in Plant 3 (I think it was 3). The Starship line was in that building and I watched the last 17 (or was it 16) being built. My reason for being there was the engineering for the Beechjet 400 (T-1 Tanker Trainer) was located in the offices fronting on Webb Avenue. Our company was very involved with their “Beecherizing” the airplane. This was their term and it meant adding strength to the airframe throughout. Coffee and Soda breaks were done at the vending machines next to the line. I was told by the engineers that its failure was due to overweight (right Richard), only 400 gallons of fuel (short range) and un-conventional looks. We were invited to produce the Aluminum Forging that attached the wing “Tip Sail” to the wing. I declined the opportunity, because as I didn’t tell them, I thought the design was not robust enough.

    Eclipse; Was originally being designed at the Williams Jet plant in Michigan. Some of the engineering people were from McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis (I don’t want you to have the impression that they were currently employed by MAC). We had a great old home week and went over the design and limited mockups at length. I was not then and am still somewhat skeptical of their “Friction Stir Welding” joining process. Aluminum, unlike Steel, is a metal that does not like to be “worked”.
    My review was for Aluminum Forgings in the Horizontal and Vertical tail assembly (“T” Tail). My take was that the proposed designs would result in a very heavy structure. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Arizona to lunch on their tax dollars. The rest is history.

  14. Jay Honeck says:

    Here’s another real-world example of an engine company that’s still out there, slogging through the muck of certification and fund raising:

    http://journaltimes.com/business/local/delathawk-struggling-before-takeoff/article_5e999cbe-702f-11e3-a7fa-001a4bcf887a.html